Altering area's fabric

Oella: Newer residents say the village's character will be forever changed if the textile mill is converted to upscale apartments

older ones say it has already happened.

July 29, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

In 65 years of living in Oella, Shirley Mellor has seen the historic village survive three floods and weather the 1972 closing of the woolen mill that employed her, her parents and much of the community.

Now Oella is poised to take on a new challenge.

This month, the Baltimore County zoning commissioner approved Forest City Residential Group's proposal to transform the 194-year-old mill from an eclectic collection of art studios and antique shops into 175 luxury apartments that would rent for as much as $3,000 per month.

Some area residents, particularly those who live in the historic homes surrounding the mill, have complained that the project will forever change the village's character. But Mellor and others who have lived in this community on the southwest edge of Baltimore County for years don't agree. Redeveloping the mill won't rob Oella of its small-town feel, they say. That feel has been eroding for years.

"Oella's still quaint like it used to be, but probably not for much longer," said Mellor, 65, gesturing to a towering 3,000-square-foot house that sits on a ridge next to the row of five brick duplexes on Oella Avenue, where she has lived for 57 years. "The yuppies are moving in."

Since 1984, when Oella was connected to county water and sewer, newcomers have been drawn to the area's historic homes, rural atmosphere and proximity to Baltimore, Howard County and Patapsco Valley State Park.

In the past couple of years, dozens of homes - some three times the size of the original mill houses - have sprouted where trees once grew. And residents such as Bill Meishid report that pickup trucks and compact cars are increasingly being joined by BMW roadsters and chunky SUVs on Oella's twisting, narrow roads.

According to the U.S. Census, the population of Oella and its surrounding area grew from 4,593 people in 1980 to 6,265 in 2000.

"When I first moved here in the mid-'80s, Oella reminded me of a West Virginia hill community," said Meishid, 56, a technical writer who lives in a 190-year-old former cabin on Oella Avenue. "It was a working-class, blue-collar community, more rural than suburban - a place where everybody knew everybody. That's being lost as you have this influx of people who are building $700,000 houses on 3/4 -acre lots."

Many of those who oppose the project have lived in the community a short time - a fact that's not lost on some of the older residents.

Newcomers "who moved into the old houses wanted to keep things the way they were," said Mellor. "I wanted to keep things the way they were before they even moved in."

Charles L. Wagant, a great-grandson of William J. Dickey, the mill's former owner, bought 110 mill properties and the adjacent land in 1973. Wagant rehabilitated the houses and lobbied the county for public water and sewer. For the past few years he has focused on selling off the dozen vacant lots that remain.

Wagant doesn't own the mill, but he points out that in 1988 a different developer had plans to buy the building and turn it into roughly the same number of luxury apartments. Back then, he said, there was no opposition.

"The people who are concerned today weren't here then," said Wagant, who is in his 70s and worked at the mill from the time he graduated from college until it closed. "They came here and bought their houses later.

"There's this feeling when people move into a community they like to have it stay the way it was the moment they moved in," he said.

While not opposed to the mill conversion, Meishid, like many Oella residents, said he is concerned about how Oella's streets - some of which are only 12 to 14 feet wide and have no shoulders - would accommodate the traffic generated by the apartment dwellers. Still, he says that luxury apartments would have less of an impact on the area than a large business.

"It's a big building and they were going to do something with it," he said. "Upscale housing is one way to minimize the impact."

Kelly Clark, an Oella resident since 1988, disagrees. "This is a little neighborhood with little roads," she said. "The plan is just too overpowering for the neighborhood."

Established in 1808 and named for the first woman to spin cotton in America, Oella was the site of Union Manufacturing Co.'s first textile mill in Maryland. The red brick building, situated on the banks of the Patapsco River, is immense - 190,000 square feet spread over seven levels. Clustered around it are the houses built for millworkers by the company - picturesque brick rowhouses adorned with window boxes of petunias, and substantial-looking gray stone duplexes whose exteriors have retained their original appearance over two centuries.

When Lynette Burns and her husband were looking to move out of Fells Point four years ago, they fell in love with Oella's "intimate" and "rural" setting. "We definitely didn't want to live in a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood," said Burns, who built a yellow Victorian-style house on Race Road that backs up to the state park.

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